SHAW, George Bernard (1856-1950). Typed letter signed ('G. Bernard Shaw'), with autograph emendations, to Frank Harris, 10 Adelphi Terrace, London, 5 March 1918, 13 pages, 4to (filing punctures at upper left corner; paper-clip stains to outer leaves) Provenance: Halsted B. Vander Poel.
An extraordinary letter, combining ad hominem criticism, analysis of international affairs, and autobiographical revelation. Shaw's analysis of Harris's character fixes upon his irresistible urge to shock -- 'I tell you you are a ruffian exactly as an oculist might tell you that you are astigmatic' -- and pictures a dinner party at which Harris, placed 'between [a] bishop and Edmund Gosse', insists on a discussion of the sexualised art of Felician Rops, 'probably produc[ing] a specimen of his work, broadening your language at the same time into that of the forecastle of a pirate sloop'. Impossible as such behaviour is, Shaw states his own appreciation of it, and compares it with Beethoven's 'ruffianism', insisting however that it has damaged Harris; 'It must have agonized Wilde, not merely because he was a snob...'. Shaw does however condemn Harris's 'extraordinary stupidity', not least in dabbling with 'the dregs of bucket shop finance and journalism', a slovenly approach which had led to his imprisonment for criminal libel: 'you got two weeks where Wilde had got two years. You deserved hanging'.
On the subject of international affairs, Shaw justifies his own anti-Boer views in the South African War ('I saw that Kruger meant the XVII century, and the Scottish XVII century at that'), and discusses the progress of the Great War ('the Balance of Power is not obsolete'). There follows an important depiction of the 'queer and quite innocent menage à trois' of Shaw's own early life, and the contrast between the reality of 'an atmosphere of freedom of thought, of anarchic revolt against conventional assumptions of all kinds' and the 'generalized concept' of what his upbringing in an Irish Protestant family must have been like: there are vivid portraits of Shaw's 'humorous father, a sort of mute inglorious Charles Lamb, who disgusted my mother by his joyless furtive drinking and his poverty and general failure', of his mother, and of the 'orchestral conductor and teacher of singing' [George John Vandaleur Lee] who completed the ménage, insisting that any sexualised understanding of the household is misguided, and that the sexual element in literature is in general overstated -- 'adultery is the dullest of themes in fiction, and has occasionally moved me to tell people that if they want a brothel they had better go to a brothel and not come to me for a book'. The last section of the letter deals with Shaw's education, discussing the importance of the influence of Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner, of science and of economics, and his ignorance of language, ending with his preference for writers such as Mark Twain ('a shocking Philistine') and Dickens over the 'humbug' of Balzac, Lytton, Disraeli and Victor Hugo, and with hopes that 'this letter is long enough to console your exile'. Frank Harris's 'exile' was in the United States, whither he had been driven by reactions to his pro-German volume England or Germany -- which? (1914).